- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

In the long history of the corporate-sponsored Science Talent Search rewarding young American scientists, Maryland's Montgomery Blair High School has had more than its share of finalists. Tuesday, the school scored again when 17-year-old Anatoly Pregel of Germantown won third place and a $50,000 scholarship in one of the country's most prestigious academic competitions.
First place, and $100,000, went to 16-year-old Jamie Rubin from the private Canterbury School in Fort Myers, Fla.
It was the first time in the contest's 62-year history in which an equal number of boys and girls placed among the top 10. (Young men traditionally, but not always, come in first, including former Blair student Jacob Lurie, a mathematician like young Anatoly who five years ago won what often is referred to as "the junior Nobel.")
History of another sort was made by the District's Sabrina Curie Snell, 17, a budding astronomer who is first in her senior class of 66 at the School Without Walls, the public high school at 2130 G St. NW whose classrooms, for the most part, are the city's museums and educational institutions.
As one of the 40 finalists chosen from among nearly 1,600 applicants nationwide, Sabrina was the first District public high school senior to be so named in more than 30 years.
The competition, run by the Washington-based nonprofit Science Service and sponsored in the past five years by Intel Corp., brought all 40 to Washington for five days of judging, sightseeing and all-around schmoozing that culminated Tuesday with the announcement of 20 winners at a celebratory formal banquet in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. (Each of the final 40 was guaranteed at least $5,000 toward college costs.)
The most intensive and stressful part of their schedule even for the nine out of the 40 who had perfect scores on their SAT exams was being subjected to unscripted interviews by 12 judges who are highly recognized scientists in various fields, including Douglas Osheroff, a 1996 Nobelist who is a member of Stanford University's Department of Physics.
"The most important part is meeting all the kids young adults from all over the country," Sabrina reflected during public exhibition hours Monday when the 40 finalists had their winning projects on display in capsule form at the National Academy of Sciences.
Anatoly agreed with her on that point, saying before he knew of his third-place win that the chance to bond with the class of 2003 from many different backgrounds was the highlight for him.
Fourteen states were represented among the finalists, and many of the students, like Anatoly, were from immigrant backgrounds. Anatoly was born in Moldova when the republic was part of the Soviet empire and came to the United States with his parents when he was 6. His parents, who are both computer programmers, have degrees in genetics and applied mathematics.
In Tuesday's medal-awarding ceremony, which resembled on a somewhat higher plane a cross between the Miss America pageant and the "Wheel of Fortune" TV show, Anatoly was quoted as saying his interest in math stems from his grandfather's passion for the subject.
The young scientists heard themselves praised by Dr. Andrew Yeager of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, chairman of the judges panel, as "leaders. … We can only just guess what they will be contributing in the future. Everyone here is a winner, and the chance of any one of them winning a Nobel [historically] is greater if you are not in the top 10."
An asteroid has been named after each of them, "so each is a heavenly winner."
Secretary of Education Rod Paige praised the students Monday at the Academy of Sciences. "You hear a lot of people talk about you as our future, but you are right now our leaders, so please continue in that role," Mr. Paige said.
The students toured the Capitol, met Vice President Richard B. Cheney in the Old Executive Office Building and even managed a night at the Improv across the street from the Mayflower Hotel, where they were billeted.
None seemed to have much difficulty communicating in spite of wildly diverse interests and backgrounds, but outsiders would have found it difficult to pronounce, much less understand, the titles of projects submitted for an initial evaluation as far back as November.
Both Anatoly and Sabrina, who began their work as interns under the wing of professionals in their respective fields, have been recipients of other awards through the years. Anatoly is involved in knot theory "closed curves in 3D-space," his abstract says. Sabrina produced "An Assessment of Linear and Accelerated Motion in Double Stars," which her lawyer-writer father, Bradford Curie Snell, said, only half jokingly, "I don't pretend to understand."
One of the finalists, asking not to be named and leery of a generally negative regard for so much brainpower in one place, insisted that the event was not "a nerd festival."
"It's not like that," he said. "All the students here are normal."
First-place winner Jamie Rubin, who plans a career in medicine, won for a biochemistry project inspired by her volunteer work at a hospice. She also runs cross-country and plays piano and hand bells. New York state resident Michael Nyberg, who won for an engineering project investigating how sound waves can help kill the mosquito larvae responsible for the West Nile virus, is a runner and an outdoorsman.
Sabrina, who lives on Capitol Hill with her father, has been working since the eighth grade in an office at the U.S. Naval Observatory under the mentorship of astronomer George Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan met the young scholar, a tall, vibrant redhead, when he was a judge at the Districtwide school science fair. Impressed by her skills she had used information available on the Internet to discover what he calls, judiciously, "observation problems" in some astronomical equations used by the European Space Agency he encouraged her work.
"Mathematics is used by all the other sciences," Anatoly said, explaining his affinity for the field. "I like solving problems. If all the [mathematical] applications were not considered relevant, you would still have the intellectual thrill." He is fluent in Russian and French, and he maintains Blair's Web site.
For Sabrina, the study of stars and planets is important because "you have to take yourself away from the world to actually understand what is going on down here. You realize the meaning of life on Earth that way."
As nervous as she was over the judges' decision Tuesday, she was equally concerned to find out whether she had won a highly competitive full scholarship from the American Field Service to study and live in South America next year. She plans to defer college for one year and later major in either astronomy or anthropology. (The AFS said Tuesday it would let her know by mail.) She also had to worry about a midterm exam in a fourth-year Spanish class she takes at George Washington University.
Exploring other cultures matters to her, she said, in order "to understand what it is like not to be an American and, hopefully, give a good impression of our college youth, especially now."
Sabrina also has taken college-level courses at American University in international relations and human rights and ethics. She learned biology at the National Zoo and the National Aquarium and said, laughing, "I don't really know what a science lab would look like."
She got interested in science when she and her older brother, now a computer and neuroscience major at New York University, were taken by their father to launch homemade rockets in Anacostia Park in Southeast. A visit to Goddard Space Flight Center "to see what real ones were like" sold them both, permanently.
Becoming a researcher on a book about government procurement schedules for Jonathan Aronie, a member of the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Schriver and Jacobsen, helped her "eliminate certain professions," she said. That task grew out of a partnership the firm has with the School Without Walls. Students are invited there to participate in round-table discussions on current events.
"Astronomy is my first love, but I don't think you can ever limit yourself," she said. "I don't ever want to be titled or fit into a box."
Deciding on winners who are representative of many different scientific fields didn't daunt contest judges, who were free to explore the candidates' achievements and abilities any way they chose. "They would say, 'Someone hands you a periodic table [of the elements] and asks you to describe it and say why it is important,'" Anatoly recalled. Judges worked in panels of three in 15-minute sessions and questioned the candidates further during exhibit days Sunday and Monday.
Each judge has an individual specialty, "but most of us have broad interests, and probably each of us knows something about three or four other fields," said Sudarshan Chawathe, 33, an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Maryland. Most questions relate to student projects but can touch on aspects of creative thinking as well.
Last year, he said, he asked "something about sailboats because I also know engineering." This year, he asked some of them how they would go about arranging boxes of books that would involve moving the least number of boxes.
"There is a fairly good answer, but no right one," Mr. Chawathe admitted.

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